Two state-level meetings last week were separate but connected, demonstrating a convergence of factors affecting all Mississippi public university students, current and future, and their parents.
In one meeting, the state Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning gave final approval to the latest round of university tuition increases that had been tentatively OK’d in October. Those increases will mean students at Mississippi State University and the University of Mississippi will pay at least 5 percent higher tuition next year and face another 5 percent hike the year after that. Other state universities will see smaller increases.
The tuition hikes will be used primarily to fund pay raises for faculty, who on average remain well behind their peers in surrounding states.
At the other meeting, the board of directors of the Mississippi Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Plan – MPACT for short – heard a discouraging report from auditors. It’s $82 million in the hole, they said, and if the program isn’t reopened to new enrollees, that deficit will increase to $142 million. Last year, the board placed a moratorium on enrollment while it assessed the financial condition of the program.
The connection between these two developments is direct. MPACT guaranteed that students could lock in to current tuition rates, even if they are years away from enrolling in college. When MPACT was established in the mid-1990s, no one foresaw the rapid tuition increases that have occurred since, which upset the projections upon which the program was based.
Coupled with the financial collapse of 2008-09 and lower than projected earnings, the tuition rise has put MPACT on perilous footing. It may not be able to reopen, but the state will still need to come up with the funds to pay for the promises made to the 22,000 current enrollees.
A further connecting thread in all this is the Legislature’s systematic reduction in university funding in recent years. The percentage of state funding in the operating budgets of MSU and Ole Miss used to be well over half; now it is as low as 15 percent. Tuition, on the other hand, now makes up 60 percent of revenues for those budgets.
Students and their parents, meanwhile, feel the squeeze as tuition continually rises to make up for the cuts in state funding, faculty salaries lose ground, and programs are reduced or eliminated.
MPACT was a good concept designed to help parents and students avoid what by comparison seem tame tuition increases when the program originated. As long as current funding and tuition trends continue, however, the program’s chances for solvency seem bleak.